How churches in Africa are helping to challenge the status quo by Dionne Gravesande

Dionne Gravesande looks at the role of the Church in Africa, and how they are working alongside communities in Kenya affected by the recent terrorist atrocities
Living as a first-world citizen in a global village presents a great moral challenge. Many people are aware that the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population consume 76.6% of the world’s resources, while the world’s poorest 20% are left with 1.5%.

However, fewer people know that, while basic education for everyone in the world would cost $6billion, Europeans spend $11billion dollars on ice cream annually; that providing reproductive healthcare for all women in the world would cost $12 billion – Americans and Europeans currently spend the same amount on perfumes yearly, and that nutrition for everyone in the world would only cost $13 billion dollars. These facts offer a glimpse into the different social realities of life in the global North and South, and reveal two underlying moral problems.

Firstly, these statistics demonstrate a behavioural problem on the part of people living in the First World that manifests itself as relative indulgence and overconsumption by the world’s elite in the face of human suffering around the world. Secondly, these massive inequalities between life in the First World and life in the two-thirds world reveal an underlying structural problem: that the contemporary structures of the global economy—including neo-classical economic theory, international financial institutions, global trade agreements, and the actions of transnational business corporations—are designed by people in the First World in ways that disproportionately benefit those of us living in the First World.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Nairobi, Kenya. The exposure visit I took part in was to help a small strategic group familiarise themselves with a church mobilisation programme.

A Church Mobilisation Process is an open-ended and participatory process that is conducted within a church setting, with the aim of triggering its potential by encouraging the church to appreciate the context in which it is based, and repositioning it to be a change agent in the community, thus helping to tackle poverty at its root, as well as mending broken relationships with God, with neighbours and with the environment.

This process is preceded by visioning sessions, which set the stage for the church leadership to redefine their vision and strategy for integral mission. Many churches, faith-based agencies and governments acknowledge that ‘in many developing countries, churches and other faith groups create the social infrastructure on which people depend: schools, health centres, access to finance, and protection for victims of conflict or disaster. They are rooted and active in every community. It is to these groups that people turn for support and comfort when disasters strike; for hope and inspiration in their struggle against oppression, and for sanctuary at times of danger. It is there that people find also their identity affirmed and their dignity upheld’. (Source: Partnership for Change, Christian Aid.)

“For the majority of Africans, faith and development are not separable; they are intertwined in the realities of everyday experience.”

Some of the ways we envisage the more visible and transformational role of churches and faith groups is by ‘speaking out with a strong moral voice; wielding their political clout to get local and national governments to prioritise health, education and other essential services; inspiring citizens, communities and policy-makers with an alternative vision of development; changing prejudices that are deeply rooted in culture and tradition, including within their own church structures and practices; and playing a proactive role in addressing the causes of violence, tackling impunity, and resolving conflicts peacefully’.

For the majority of Africans, faith and development are not separable; they are intertwined in the realities of everyday experience. Faith enables people to relate to the world around them, to draw meaning and hope for a better tomorrow. In Africa, churches and faith-based organisations are among the most influential institutions in society. Church leaders command a lot of respect and authority in their communities, and are important opinion-shapers and change agents. And so, it is against this backdrop that I heard the testimonies of several survivors of the April 2nd attack by radical Islamic Al-Shabaab gunmen on a university in the Kenyan diocese of Garissa. The attack left 150 people dead and 80 injured. My heart was indeed saddened, and yet hope is still alive in Nairobi. Residents will not allow terrorists to dictate what life they can or can’t have. Christians are united in their grief, struggle and faith that they will overcome such evil behaviour.

Many residents envisage churches and faith groups increasingly playing a distinctive role in peace and securing the rights all people, particularly poor and marginalised women and men. But peace has never been about the absence of strife. Kenyans have committed themselves to ‘vigorously encourage and challenge church leaders and communities, in the global north and south, to use their power and influence to benefit poor and excluded people who often experience the worst conflict. We need leaders to deliver social and economic justice’ as well as to ‘work much harder to build trusting relationships with other faith-based organisations, so that we can work together to bring about a shared vision of justice and peace’.

Many churches, especially the missionary churches, have set out elaborate social outreach initiatives as part and parcel of their mission. They use their infrastructure and other resources to support these initiatives, which ensure great ownership and sustainability. This infrastructure can provide agencies with a great opportunity, by working with and through the Church and its networks. Such a model offers us different ways of being church in relevant ways, and opens the doors to new and exciting partnerships. Why not explore if your church might be up for such a partnership?

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